JOK Notebook

Kanji Builder on Kanshudo

Over at Kanshudo, a site that teaches kanji in a variety of ways, there's a new game called Kanji Builder. Founder Jonathan Kirk invited me to give it whirl when it was in beta mode (which is no longer the case).

I believe that beta testers are supposed to try to break whatever gizmo or code they've encountered, but instead Kanji Builder almost broke me! 

Here's how the game works. You start out with a display like this:

You need to choose components from the list on the right and drag them onto the correct boxes on the grid. 

But first you need to draw a blank and panic a bit! You might also engage in a round of self-flagellation, along the lines of, "How can I not know this? What's wrong with me?!"

Eventually, you realize that you do know the answer, possibly after making a few mistakes and narrowing down the list of components. Kanshudo also provides hints if you need them.

This is how the display looks when you're partway there.

When you've selected the proper components, you see something like this:

I like the positive reinforcement in green on the top left!

For me, the game brought back fond memories of my first deep dives into kanji. Using Michael Rowley's Kanji Pict-o-Graphix, which breaks down kanji into components, I would spend hours and hours creating flashcards with a family tree–like structure, dissecting each character down to its smallest meaningful units.

I gradually abandoned that approach, though I’m not sure why. I mean, I still scrutinize each kanji when I write about the etymology. It feels essential to drill down in that way. For one thing, I’m always desperately hoping to unlock the secret to a particular kanji—and also keeping an ear out for a "pun."

But at some point my emphasis shifted to reading kanji in compounds and in full sentences. So it was actually shocking to try the Kanji Builder and to realize how long it had been since I’d thought like that. There was rust on those gears! The game was hard and humbling!

I chatted about my experience with Jonathan, and our email exchange elicited some intriguing comments from him, so with his permission, I've decided to share our conversation here.


Jonathan: To really learn kanji, I think you need to learn them in context—of grammar, vocabulary, reading materials, etc.

Eve: To me, the component focus takes the kanji out of context. As a learner, one is often urged to have a holistic perspective (I don't mean New Age medicine, so I'm probably saying that wrong!), seeing the kanji as a whole, seeing the kanji compound as a whole, seeing the sentence as a whole, seeing the passage as a whole, etc. Native speakers almost scoff at the picking-apart-each-kanji approach. Lots of native speakers don't know the meanings of the more obscure components (like the "old bird" radical).

So how do you reconcile the component focus you have on the one hand with the learning-in-context approach on the other?

Jonathan: I believe that to truly learn a kanji as a non-Japanese, you need to link it with other knowledge in your mind in a variety of ways. I think there are several ways to do that, and ideally you'd use more than one. The ones I think (based on my personal experience, and what I know about memory in general) are most effective are: 

a. components
b. mnemonics
c. most common words

Once you're armed with those three tools, the next most important thing is enough repetition while the kanji is in your short-term memory so that you can transfer it to your long-term memory. 

This is diametrically opposite to the way Japanese learn kanji, which is through cementing them at a very early age by tremendous amounts of (brute force) repetition. This would be extremely difficult for a foreigner to replicate. Even if you could reproduce parts of it (such as writing a given kanji 100 times in succession), you wouldn't be able to reproduce the exposure part (whereby you see that kanji in sentences that use it, and only it plus the others you know, every day for weeks). So I don't think the Japanese approach can work for foreigners, and conversely it's not surprising that Japanese people don't end up with the same associations with a kanji as someone who has learned it a different way. 

To me, components are learning in context. By understanding how a kanji breaks down, you've anchored it to other pieces of knowledge. So that's a kind of "downward" context, if you like. Meanwhile, looking at the most common word(s) that use it, and sentences that use those, is a kind of "upward" context. Context goes in several directions, and the more you can anchor anything new to anything you know, the more likely it will stick.

Taking the time to dig incredibly deeply into a single kanji will also reinforce many links with existing knowledge. I think this is what your essays do. I bet you are pretty unlikely to forget any kanji you've written an essay about. I would think that would carry over to an extent to someone who really reads the essay. 

The Kanji Builder demonstrates quite vividly that if you've forgotten a kanji—if you can't picture it in your head the way a Japanese person would—you're a bit stuck. However, if you can dredge up the mnemonic, you can figure out the components, and you can "build" the kanji with them. This is not to say that you need the mnemonic every time you look at a kanji. A mnemonic is just a tool that gets you started. 

Of course, the other really crucial piece of this is that when you learn Japanese, the sheer time spent looking up things is a huge factor in how fast you progress. This was much more of an issue 20 years ago, of course, but even today most Japanese books are not available electronically. Knowing the components cold lets you look up a kanji in a fraction of the time it takes if you have to figure out each one.


If you check out the Kanji Builder game, let me know how it goes for you!

Also, a very happy and kanji-ful birthday to Jonathan!

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention the latest at Joy o' Kanji! Essay 1891 on 酪 (dairy product) is now out! Here's a sneak preview:


Did you like this post? Express your love by supporting Joy o' Kanji on Patreon:


Add comment

Log in or register to post comments